In comments, Tony M recommended Ted Holiday's The Goblin Universe to me as an interesting read. And I did enjoy the book, though I think I appreciated it more on the level of entertainment than actual evidence. As Colin Wilson admits in the introduction, the book would not convince anyone who has a skeptical cast of mind; the data presented are almost entirely anecdotal and can easily be written off as hoaxes or the delusions of gullible eyewitnesses.
The problem [writes Wilson] is that the reader needs to start out with a certain sympathy for these ideas. The Goblin Universe would never convert a single sceptic; in fact, it would probably make him more certain than ever that 'the occult' is a farrago of self-deception and muddled thinking. [pp. 28,29]
Nevertheless, the book does raise provocative and intriguing questions about the nature of reality. Wilson himself was so impressed with The Goblin Universe that he prevailed on the author's family to have it published posthumously, after Ted Holiday himself had chosen to leave it unpublished. Holiday may have been dissatisfied with the book because its conclusions are rather tentative; he sketches out a hypothesis that is at once elaborate and incomplete. Whether there is any merit to this hypothesis remains to be seen.
Before we get to that, let's look at the main subject matter of the book. Though The Goblin Universe covers a wide variety of phenomena, the author's principal concern is with what he calls "the phantom menagerie," the collection of beasties that have always been part of folklore and tabloid newspaper reports. Naturally, Bigfoot and Sasquatch and the yeti are here, as are mysterious big cats that come and go in the night, and the fairy folk, but Holiday's main interest is lake monsters, the most famous of which is the creature said to be inhabiting Loch Ness.
I learned a lot about this marginal area of zoological exploration in Holiday's book. For one thing, Loch Ness is by no means unique. Similar legends surround other lakes in Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere. Moreover, I always pictured the Loch Ness monster as resembling a plesiosaur, a huge marine reptile* from the dinosaur age. But on the basis of the reports collected by Holiday, Nessie takes on a less attractive aspect. It is said to resemble a giant worm or slug with a horselike face. In some cases, it is reported to have multiple legs, like a centipede. Holiday speculates that the creature might have its origins as a prehistoric worm that channeled through the sedimentary deposits at the bottom of the lake, surfacing only infrequently.
He does not, however, believe that the present-day Loch Ness monster is an actual organic being. Instead, he regards it as something more akin to a "thought form," an image or idea that temporarily materializes or manifests itself in such a way as to be perceived by especially sensitive observers under just the right conditions. There is, in short, something otherworldly about the Loch Ness monster and, Holiday believes, something evil. He was so convinced of this fact that he engaged a professional exorcist to perform an exorcism of the loch. The aftereffects of this ritual, as described by Holiday, were extremely bizarre and involved the brief appearance of a "man in black," the archetypal figure often cited by ufologists. Indeed, Holiday believes there is a connection between UFOs and the phantom menagerie; UFOs, he thinks, are thought forms too.
And here is where his hypothesis comes in. He points us to the work of Harold Burr, former professor of anatomy at the Yale School of Medicine. For decades Burr investigated what he called "L-fields," short for "life-fields," which he saw as electrodynamic fields that organize all living systems. These fields, measured in millivolts, supposedly determine the structure and health of any living thing.
As Holiday summarizes,
L-fields, in fact, compel atoms and molecules to form appropriate shapes, and to keep the these shapes as individual cells die and need replacing. Instead of trial and error, Burr and his colleagues found perfect order. Every atom carries an electrical charge and is acted on by the field of the organism. A modification takes place between the field and the organism and vice versa, which has the authority of unfailing natural law. [p. 206]
Holiday carries Burr's work considerably further by speculating that the mind itself can directly affect L-fields. If this is so, and if L-fields are responsible for bringing together the constituents of living beings and organizing them into a coherent system, then the mind -- or perhaps we should say Mind -- operating through health fields, can create physical things.
But the essential point is that something nonmaterial -- a thought in the mind of the operator or the dying reactions of a small experimental animal -- [is] translated into measurable physical effects by no known means.
Perhaps we are now looking somewhat dimly at the real mechanism of evolution. To talk of the hit-or-this stupidity of chance mutations is as ludicrous as talking about a Creator making animals of clay. A far more subtle and effective method of modifying animals exists and it can be shown to exist -- the effect of mind on matter....
We now see that plants and animals are under electronic control. And this control appears to be subject to further control from a timeless, nonmaterial agency loosely specified as mind, will, soul or spirit. This is not a matter of faith, but of scientific experiment. Evolution by selection does occur; but the selection is rational and intelligent. Far more subtle than any human intelligence, it is therefore extremely difficult to comprehend. Yet it has many attributes humans recognise in themselves. It enjoys the grotesque and even the horrifying. It is both spendthrift and immensely economical. It labors to perfect the seemingly impossible just for fun. Above all, it has an awareness of beauty in form and structure that dazzles the mind. If we try to probe a little deeper into the mystery of being, we find ourselves in the Goblin Universe along with Alice having tea with mad hares in top hats. [pp. 209-212]
In brief, then, the phantom menagerie, in Holiday's view, consists of entities that materialize and dematerialize out of physical constituents organized by L-fields, such fields in turn being directed by some mind or other. It is left unclear whether the mind in question is that of the observer, or God, or discarnate beings of a lower or higher nature, or some other source.
Now what are we to make of all this? Well, never having heard of L-fields before, I did little Googling. All I was able to determine is that the theory has been largely, if not completely, ignored by the scientific community. It has, however, embraced by some people interested in alternative medicine, such as homeopathy. There are even some dubious machines on the market that are said to improve your health by correcting defects in your L- field.
I'm not sure why Burr's work has been so completely neglected. He did, after all, have impressive credentials as a mainstream academic. I can think of two possible reasons. One is that his work verges on vitalism, an idea that is anathema to modern-day biologists. The other is that any phenomenon measurable only in millivolts is open to the objection of experimental error. Maybe the extremely feeble energies Burr measured in his experiments were an artifact of the measuring devices themselves and not part of the living systems he was scrutinizing.
If we assume, for argument's sake, that there really are such things as L-fields and that the mind can affect them, then perhaps we do have a reasonably satisfying, albeit sketchy, explanation for a variety of otherwise baffling phenomena. The idea of L-fields seems to tie in, to a certain extent, with the work of Rupert Sheldrake and his morphic fields. It may well be that some sort of energy field -- whether electromagnetic or otherwise -- lies at the heart of the phenomenon of life and perhaps even at the heart of the physical universe itself. And if the mind can be shown to influence such fields, we would have an answer to the most commonplace objection to dualism -- namely, that an immaterial mind cannot interact with or affect a material reality.
The Goblin Universeraises these questions in a consistently entertaining and even droll way. Not all of the evidence Holiday presents is equally credible, but I suppose that's the nature of this kind of material, which is inherently ambiguous and subjective. The book is certainly worth reading, as is Colin Wilson's extensive introduction, which runs more than 40 pages. At the end, you may find yourself less certain than ever about the line of demarcation between the objective and the subjective, and unlikely ever to go boating on Loch Ness.
*Originally I wrote "a large marine mammal." An astute reader pointed out that plesiosaurs were not mammals. I knew this (I have a longstanding interest in dinosaurs and their seagoing relatives), but apparently I experienced a mental glitch. Anyway, I corrected the text on March 17.
A writer friend of mine, M.J. Hawk, has written a terrific thriller called The Shop, which focuses on the mysterious death of rising pop star Brienne Cross. But these days it's not enough just to write a great book. You have to convince publishers to roll the dice by showing them that there's a built-in demand for the story.
For this reason, my friend has put together a series of Web sites devoted to exploring the mystery of Brienne Cross's tragic death. The sites come complete with photos of Brienne and the house in Aspen where she and her reality-show castmates met their doom. Various posts explore all aspects of the crime. If you didn't know it was all a work of fiction, you'd swear it was real.
The point of this exercise is to inspire people to click the Demand It! button on any of the Web sites, thus registering another vote in favor of publishing The Shop.
I have pressed this button and am now on record as Demanding It! Maybe some of you kind souls would like to do the same.
Here's the main site:
And here are some of the satellite sites:
As you can see, a lot of work went into this promotional effort, but even more work went into the book itself. It's a complex, crafty, highly original story that takes off in unpredictable directions and builds to a powerful climax.
If that sounds like the kind of book you'd like to read ... Demand It!
Several years ago I saw an episode of Larry King Live featuring a debate about life after death. One of the participants was the medium John Edward. At one point, apparently a bit exasperated by the endless back-and-forth among the other guests about empirical evidence, Edward blurted out that he couldn't quite understand the constant effort to prove the issue scientifically. After all, he said, "it's a belief system."
At the time I didn't quite know what to make of this since, back then, I was interested in trying to obtain scientific proof of life after death myself. In the years since, however, my position has changed somewhat, and I now think Edward was on to something. The reality is that spiritualism -- or any sort of belief in a spirit world -- is a belief system and cannot be otherwise. It's not the kind of thing that can be definitively proven, in the same way that we might prove that water boils at 100°C at sea level or that smoking increases the risk of certain cancers. I would say that a belief in life after death is justifiable but not provable. Justifiable, because there is evidence to support it and there is a larger, reasonably coherent worldview in which an afterlife would make sense. But not provable, because an afterlife lies beyond our present range of experience.
With that in mind, here's how I would sketch out my personal worldview.
1. I think there is clear evidence that the cosmos was fine-tuned to be complex, orderly, and habitable. It is now reasonably well known that if any of the cosmological constants or laws of physics varied even to a small degree, the universe either would have collapsed back on itself immediately after the Big Bang or would have developed in such a way that any imaginable kind of life would be impossible. The extremely narrow parameters in which life can exist argue strongly for some kind of master plan that lies behind the universe. Chance coincidence is an explanation only if we posit the existence of a virtual infinitude of parallel or sequential universes, each with different initial conditions. But there is no empirical evidence for this so-called "multiverse" and no apparent way for such evidence to be acquired, since by definition these alternate universes would be completely outside the scope of our reality. To my mind, at least, the most parsimonious and satisfying explanation is not that there is an infinite number of universes, but rather that there is one universe which, to paraphrase astronomer Sir James Jeans, is more like a great thought than a great machine.
2. If the universe is improbable, so is life. Many mathematicians have pointed out the extreme statistical improbability that even a single protein could be assembled by chance. A living cell requires many proteins. There does not appear to have been enough time in the entire history of the universe, let alone in the comparatively brief history of the earth, for these proteins to develop at random.
3. Moreover, proteins alone are not enough for life. Life requires encoded information, which is found in either DNA or RNA. This information consists of the instructions necessary to make proteins and do all the work of the living cell, including the all-important job of replication. The only information that appears to arise spontaneously via natural processes is of a very limited type, like the repetitive structure of a crystal, which consists of the same simple pattern repeated over and over. The information encoded in DNA is not of this kind. Information theorists call it "specified complexity," meaning that the bits of data are arranged in a specific, unpredictable, nonrepetitive pattern like the letters of the alphabet in a written communication. To me it seems most unlikely that a natural process could bring about the origin of information of this type, any more than a purely natural process could somehow produce the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Indeed, it may even be logically impossible for information to arise in this way.
4. There is yet another difficulty for a purely naturalistic theory of the origin of life -- namely, the chicken-and-egg problem of which came first, the proteins or the DNA. DNA is useless without proteins to carry out its instructions. But proteins don't exist in the absence of DNA, which tells the cell how to make them. Perhaps there is some way out of this conundrum, but for now the problem appears insoluble.
5. The fine-tuning of the universe, coupled with the apparent intelligent organization of the living cell at its deepest level, strongly suggests that the random concatenation of subatomic particles cannot explain the origin and nature of either the cosmos or life. Another explanation appears to be required. Nor should this be surprising when we consider that there is obviously more to the universe than just physical matter and energy. There is also consciousness. It is pretty rare for anyone to argue that consciousness is a physical thing, like a brick. Some people do liken it to an energy field, but this kind of argument leaves unexplained the subjective properties of consciousness -- the so-called "qualia" and sense of self. It seems clear enough, at least to me, that consciousness is simply a different kind of thing -- not different quantitatively but qualitatively -- from the physical constituents of the universe.
6. If this is true, then at least at a certain level of analysis, we are led inexorably to dualism. Dualism is the view that reality consists of physical things on the one hand and nonphysical consciousness or spirit on the other. It is of course possible that at a deeper level this dualistic dichotomy could resolve into a single source; the technical name for such a view is neutral monism, which holds that both consciousness and the physical world spring from the same ground of being. Regardless of the ultimate source, we at least perceive the world dualistically. There is matter and energy on the one hand, and there is consciousness on the other. How exactly they interact or interrelate, and which (if either) comes first, are difficult questions to which I don't pretend to have the answers. It's enough for me to know that this dualistic property is part of the universe as I understand it.
7. Dualism naturally implies a dichotomy between matter and spirit. It means that naturalism, materialism, or physicalism cannot be a complete explanation of reality, even if these approaches may be extremely productive in more narrowly circumscribed areas. It also means that there is no reason to rule out of bounds phenomena that run contrary to materialistic assumptions, by which I mean paranormal phenomena, such as out-of-body experiences, ESP, and even miracles. Indeed, I've spent a good deal of time on this blog providing evidence for such things, and I believe that we are more than justified in accepting the reality of such events in some cases. The evidence for remote viewing, for instance, is particularly good, as is the evidence for telepathy as gathered in the ganzfeld experiments. This body of evidence strongly suggests that consciousness operates through the brain but is not necessarily restricted to the brain in all circumstances.
8. If consciousness is not inextricably tied to the brain, then it might reasonably be expected to survive the death of the brain. This is where life after death comes in. Again, I've spent a lot of time on this blog talking about the evidence for life after death, which includes apparitions, deathbed visions, near-death experiences, mediumship, reincarnation, and possession, among other things. Naturally some cases are stronger than others. No doubt some superficially strong cases can be debunked. No doubt there has been a fair amount of fraud, error, and delusion. Nonetheless, when I look at the strongest cases in each of these categories, I'm convinced of their genuineness.
9. Moreover, the great majority of people throughout history have also been convinced of the reality of the spirit world. Undoubtedly this remains true today, even in an age of triumphalist materialism. Nor has this belief been relegated to the margins of society. It has been the central, organizing belief behind most cultures. The earliest works of art and architecture were inspired by religious motives. Prehistoric cave paintings, the ziggurats, the pyramids, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the writings of the ancient Hebrews, the earliest law codes like the Ten Commandments and the Code of Hammurabi, and the other signal achievements of the primordial civilizations were grounded in spiritistic beliefs. The complete rejection of such beliefs is the hallmark of a comparatively small minority of intellectuals in the modern Western world. Naturally they believe themselves to be the vanguard of a rationalist future. But, to my way of thinking, it is more likely that they will prove to be an aberration, perfectly understandable given the circumstances of our age, but an intellectual and cultural dead end nevertheless.
10. If there is a spirit world, and if the physical world was created according to some kind of overarching plan, then we would reasonably expect to find some purpose in this world. And in fact generations of sages, seers, mystics, prophets, mediums, channelers, and other spiritual seekers have generally agreed that we come here to learn lessons, to overcome hardships, and to grow spiritually. There are, of course, innumerable differences of doctrinal detail, but the broad consensus is sufficiently clear. It has been labeled "the perennial philosophy."
11. When we ask specifically what it means to grow spiritually, we are told in almost all traditions that it means to learn to love as much of creation as possible, and in doing so, to achieve what mystics know as unity consciousness -- also called cosmic consciousness -- a sense of oneness with the universe, with all other living beings, and with God. In the mystical traditions that I'm aware of, this kind of consciousness is the highest goal.
12. The reward, or least the concomitant, of this universal consciousness is awareness of being reunited with the Source of all that exists. In effect, we start out in exile from the Source and then make our way back toward it. We're like raindrops, born in evaporation from ocean waters, which then rain down on the ocean and become one with it again. In some paradoxical way, we may not lose our individuality even when we achieve total union with the divine. At least this is what some traditions teach, though others teach that at the end of our journey individuality is extinguished -- but only at the point when we are more than ready to give it up.
Now, this is a fairly comprehensive scheme that tries to answer the basic questions: Why are we here? What we meant to do? What's it all about?
But it is not a testable scientific theory. Parts of it may be testable, like the reliability of certain mediums. But the overall system is not testable and cannot be confirmed or falsified by any scientific method.
Moreover, every part of this scheme can be challenged. Point 1, for instance, can be challenged on the basis of the multiverse theory. The points about biology can be criticized as a "God of the gaps" argument. (I don't think that this criticism is correct, and for a reply I refer the reader to God's Undertaker by John C. Lennox, which also covers points 1-5 in considerable detail. Still, the debate is far from settled.) Obviously claims about the reality of paranormal phenomena can be vigorously questioned. And so on.
At the end of the day, what we have here is a map of the world that makes sense to me, but does not compel the acquiescence of anyone else. Reasonable people can disagree. I can only say that, for me personally, this outlook on life is more satisfying than the skeptical, rationalistic outlook that I previously held. I have found it useful to me in my own personal development and growth, and in dealing with personal difficulties. I take some comfort and reassurance from it, and I think it is more likely to be true, at least in broad outline, than to be false. It is not written in stone, and it's not the final word, and there are many gray areas and lacunae, but it is the best worldview that I've been able to come up with so far in my nearly fifty years on this planet.
In other words, it's a belief system. And it's one that I'm pretty happy with.
Believe it or not, this is my 1000th post on this blog. If anyone had told me, back when I started, that I would do 1000 posts, I would have been appalled. But here we are.
The 1000th post seems to call for a big topic, and what can be bigger than God?
I'm currently reading God's Undertaker by John C. Lennox, a book that poses a series of arguments against materialism. (The book was recommended in a comments thread by Zetetic Chick.) I was familiar with most of these arguments from prior reading, but it's still worthwhile to see them assembled in one place and presented so ably. The book got me thinking about the nature of God and his -- or its -- relationship with the cosmos.
On the one hand, as Lennox makes clear, there is a great deal of prima facie evidence for conscious intelligent intention in the design of the universe and the origin of life. On the other hand, it would be difficult to maintain that this universe is "the best of all possible worlds," as Dr. Pangloss liked to say. There are obvious imperfections in earthly life. There are congenital diseases, birth defects, flesh-eating bacteria, the Ebola virus, and plenty of other nasty things that we would not expect to find in a world that was meticulously designed in every detail by a benevolent creator.
How do we square this circle? It seems to me that if are going to assume that God -- whatever exactly we mean by that term -- lies behind the universe, we also have to assume that God does not directly control every outcome. I think we have to make room for what I would think of as creative exploration of the universe's possibilities -- all its possibilities, for better or worse. A creative process, by its nature, is spontaneous -- unplanned and unpredictable. If every outcome could be known in detail before exploration even began, there would be no point in exploring at all. Exploration makes sense only when the outcome is unknown and will come as a surprise.
In other words, I'm suggesting that it's not just girls who wanna have fun. God wants to have fun too. Spontaneous creative exploration of every possibility implicit in the cosmos is God's way of having fun.
I can think of a couple of analogies that might help clarify this point. First let's think of a fiction writer. He starts off by coming up with the idea for a novel and working out the general outline of the plot, including the dramatic highlights and resolution, the main characters and their motivations and conflicts, etc. But when he actually starts to write the book, he may find that it goes in directions he hadn't anticipated. The characters may say things that surprise him. The plot may veer off at an unexpected angle. In some cases these spontaneous developments may constitute an improvement on his original plan. In other cases they may turn out to be dramatic dead ends, requiring him to backtrack and make corrections. In still other cases, the value of the new approach may not be immediately apparent and he may have to pursue it for a while in a process of creative exploration to see where it leads. In short, the novel is both a preplanned and a spontaneous product, a mixture of logical planning and intuitive playfulness. The logical planning gives it the shape and form and structure necessary for dramatic unity; the intuitive playfulness is the spark of life that makes the process fun.
Or let's consider another analogy. Suppose you set up a model railroad. You carefully arrange the tracks and the crossings and switches, and when it's all ready, you turn it on and stand back and watch. At that point your pleasure is simply watching the train go around the track, through the tunnels and over the bridges and past your little villages. You don't feel the need to interfere that point, unless the train goes off the tracks. Then you have to set it back on the rails and start it up again. Your role in the process is partly that of designer and partly that of spectator. This dual role is what makes the hobby fun.
Perhaps when theologians talk about God being both transcendent and immanent, they are getting at something like this. Here's an explanation of these terms from a Web site devoted to religious tolerance:
"The term 'transcendence' derives from a Latin word meaning 'to go beyond'." It refers to deity as existing above, outside of, or beyond creation. It is generally a different and higher order of being than are humans and other living entities. For example, the ancient Hebrews viewed God as seated on a throne in Heaven above the firmament, where he could smell the delicious fragrance of meat cooking on temple altars below.
"Immanence" is also derived "from Latin, but conveys the polar opposite sense of 'indwelling' or the quality of 'within-ness'." Deity is seen as being within the universe, perhaps an "...inner presence and Power that permeates, saturates, or infuses the universe and everything in it..." For example, Taoists believe that the Tao [is] a formless, unchanging and self-sufficient form of energy, which was present before the universe existed, and continues to be present in all things.
In my understanding, the transcendent God is the God who preplans the universe. The immanent God is the one who operates through natural, ongoing earthly processes. The transcendent God is the writer who develops the plot outline. The immanent God is the writer who allows the story to tell itself, within limits. The transcendent God is the hobbyist who sets up the train set. The immanent God is the hobbyist who lets the train set run, interfering only when there is a problem.
The transcendent God encoded the instructions in DNA and got the process of life started with messenger RNA to conduct those instructions and specialized proteins to carry out their orders. The immanent God sustains the process of biological evolution, allowing species to ramify into new forms and new ecological niches -- allowing living things to "be fruitful and multiply" and explore all possible variations, lifeways, and habitats.
The transcendent God set the parameters of our cosmos to allow for a stable, habitable environment. The immanent God operates within those parameters, playing out the intricate relationships between the observer and the observed on a minute-by-minute basis.
Another way of looking at it is to see the universe as a thought in the mind of God. From this perspective also, God can be seen as either transcendent or immanent. He is transcendent, i.e. outside the universe, in the sense that the thinker is not the thought. Alternatively, he is immanent, i.e. part of the universe, in the sense that the universe is his thought, his subjective reality.
If I think of a unicorn, I am not the unicorn. The thinker is not the thought. On the other hand, the unicorn exists as part of my particular subjective awareness. In that sense, I am identified with the unicorn. So the unicorn is both distinct from me and part of me, depending on which viewpoint I take.
Of course, this leads to the question of our own personal relationship to God. If the universe is a thought in the mind of God, then so are we. This means that we are both distinct from God and identified with God. In his transcendent aspect, God is separate from us, just as a fiction writer's characters are not the writer himself. And yet the characters spring from the writer's mind and deepest impulses, and are, in a sense, inseparable from him. Likewise, in his immanent aspect, God is connected to us, inseparable from us; we might even say God is us.
It all depends on how you look at it.
A hodgepodge of items, in no particular order ...
I just read two Skeptiko interviews with Dr. Jeffrey Long and Dr. Kevin Nelson. Interesting to see how two experts can look at the same data and arrive at totally different conclusions.
Dr. Long is convinced that NDEs provide "proof" of life after death and has written a book promoting this viewpoint. Dr. Nelson believes that NDEs can be explained by standard neuroscience.
I have some problems with Dr. Long's position. He seems to have acquired his database from stories submitted to a Web site. I don't know how much (if any) checking and verification he performed.
He also insists that the veridical parts of NDEs are almost always accurate, but I have read a fair number of NDE accounts in which the veridical part was inaccurate in some respects. As one example, in his book The Truth in the Light, Peter Fenwick includes a case in which a man hovered over his body but did not see his companions near him. When he returned to his body, he found that one of his companions was actually lying on top of him (dead) - something he certainly should have seen from an elevated vantage point.
Of course, I have my doubts about Dr. Nelson's position too. His case is basically that the brain continues to function for 10-20 seconds after cardiac arrest, thus accounting for any veridical details in the NDE. But this seems unsatisfactory on a number of levels. For one thing, NDErs do not report confused, disconnected impressions, but coherent, vivid, structured narratives that are inconsistent with a feebly flickering consciousness. For another, some NDEs involve perceptions of thing totally outside the patient's normal range of awareness - a shoe on a ledge, for instance. Some veridical accounts involve visual details that could only be perceived by some form of sight (such as the unusual color of a hospital worker's blouse), yet the patient's eyes were closed. Etc.
Dr. Nelson also claims that science understands a lot about how the brain produces consciousness. I don't think this is correct. It would be correct to say that science has learned a lot about brain states and how they correlate with mental states (although the correlation is not always as clear as popular articles suggest), but the "hard problem" of how subjective consciousness emerges from electrochemical operations in the brain remains unanswered.
As leading neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has said, when it comes to brain research, "We are not a few miles down a long road; we are a few inches down the long road." (Quoted in There Is Life After Death, by Roy Abraham Varghese.)
Naturally, the same could be said for research into life after death.
Cyrus posted an interesting comment that may have been overlooked, so I'm putting it here:
As usual I'm jumping into this conversation very late, but I found Zetetic Chick's points about the "third way" to be very interesting.
I generally feel disdain around both materialism (objectivism, reductionism, other god-awful philosophies) and religiosity which are the two prevailing mind-sets for most people in the West. As somebody who follows spiritual research I generally consider myself as belonging to some undefined third-world view.
Those who made the most headway in trying to define this world-view in concrete terms were probably the Spiritualists. This didn't work out very well because Spiritualism is / was an "ism" that came forth in an age of cults and public weariness towards new movements and ideas.
But what you'll find is public perception of things like communication with the deceased is rapidly increasing. I dare to say it's more commonly accepted and discussed in 2010 than ever in history (except perhaps.. ancient Egypt?). So, in an undefined way, it's slipping through the cracks.
The bane of its existence may very well be the "new age" movement, otherwise known as the worst attempt yet to define an organizational movement around not only communication with the departed, but a million whack-ideas, ranging from 2012 nonsense, to healing crystals, Plaedian aliens, and other bunk topics which completely invalidate the legitimate phenomena.
In essence, a world where life after death is recognized as legitimate is an entirely separate culture, far removed from the religious or materialist philosophies humans have grown up with. This would be a culture with an entirely new and unique set of philosophies and issues.
Flash-forward 100 or 200 years to a world where communication with the deceased has become technologically advanced and accepted by society:
On the plus side, I do think that in such a world there would be a higher appreciation about life. More people would take chances and dare to really "live" versus being afraid of boogeymen and staying inside their homes their whole lives. There would certainly be less materialism, which would mean the possessive, covetous, and selfish nature of many would diminish. And with less attachment to organized religion there would be more emphasis on individuality and self-expression.
The down-side: with an entire new system of philosophies, there would be many strange and alien philosophies and movements.
There would be assemblies of people who take Earth-life completely for granted. Imagine highly suicidal people prone to extreme levels of risk-taking or public displays of death.
This world would see followers of "Chaotic philosophies", perhaps in rebellion to the perceived order in the universe. These people would herald the importance of conflict and would be prone to terrorist attacks and blowing up buildings simply for the purpose of undoing other people's work.
And communication with afterlife entities could seduce entire countries. Imagine a third-world country ruled by the whims of a council of mediums who believe they are taking orders from far superior intelligences, which are in reality disruptive or dark entities.
So, as you can imagine, this would be an entirely different world. When you think about it this way, perhaps it's easy to understand why people are so weary of the supernatural, because some people just like the world for as it is right now.
However, when I look at the direction we're heading, this theoretical society may come around sooner than we think. Perhaps not our generation, but in a couple of hundred years.
And Ben posted a poem of his that deserves to be lifted out of the comments thread:
So how did honeybees evolve,
To do business as they fly;
By the sun’s position in the sky?
From eggs laid by a queen,
Most hatch as worker clones;
Some are guards; others scouts;
There are nurses; even drones.
They co-operate in colonies
Fifty thousand strong;
All summer long.
They’ve arranged a special symbiosis
With the flower;
In exchange for pollination:
Whenever scouts discover
Blossoms at their best,
They fly back home
And dance directions to the rest.
With big bulbous eyes
And ultraviolet sight,
They can see patterns on petals
Which guide them to alight.
By use of two pairs of wings
Which hook up in flight,
They can pitch up and down;
Or yaw left and right.
Inside the nest, by alchemy,
The nectar (gathered crude)
Is refined to golden honey,
The honey store does more
Than just permit bees to survive;
By sipping it, they somehow milk
The wisdom of the hive.
I know our brains to theirs
Are twenty thousand times the size;
But fifty thousand honeybees
Add up to ‘very wise’.